When life changes, poetry changes
‘I had the feeling that I couldn’t write about what I usually do; I could say: I don’t care about anything, I’m just here among the flowers and the trees. But that’s getting pretty hard to do’.
Agi Mishol was interviewed in May 2002 at her home in a suburban farm area near Gedera, a town near the Mediterranean coast, close enough to the Ben Gurion Airport flight path to hear the planes landing and taking off. A modest rectangular house protected by shrubs from the road and with orchards behind it, with three lazy looking mixed breed dogs sunning themselves on the patio, Mishol’s home reminded me more of Iowa than Israel. From the kitchen table where she often writes, she can see a sign marking the first Jewish settlement in the area, dating from 1884, a few miles off on a hill now uninhabited.
Q: I want to talk to you about poetry, but I must ask: how can you write in this situation?
A: It’s true that one’s mental state lately is quite bad, as if a coil keeps springing up at you, it’s impossible to relax, impossible to read, impossible to do anything for any length of time. On the days when I’m at home I move around restlessly, push papers from one side of the desk to the other, cook a little, talk on the telephone, everything in short bursts. It’s impossible to do anything really, to take a breath deep enough to accomplish something.
This is exactly the topic of ‘To the Muses’. It’s hard to write about anything else, apart from the situation. I remember around the time when I wrote this poem, I was standing over here in the yard, yellow flowers were in bloom over there, it was just beautiful. Naturally this is how one wants things to be, to write about, you know, the subjects poetry is drawn to – beauty, eternity, which don’t exist for anything, poetry doesn’t exist for anything, it doesn’t have a goal, it’s not about statements. Beauty isn’t for something. And poetry as I experience it is usually born out of quietness, nothingness. That’s poetry’s natural background. I often think about it as the image of a fish in water: living in it, the fish doesn’t notice the water. Poetry too lives inside this nothingness. Inside the quiet. It develops slowly. And suddenly the background changes and it’s noisy because of the changes and so poetry changes too – it can’t be what it generally is. I had the feeling that I couldn’t write about what I usually do; I could say: I don’t care about anything, I’m just here among the flowers and the trees . . . But that’s getting pretty hard to do. I had never written about political or social topics before, or if I did it was ironic or well-hidden, and still it’s there (in the poetry) because I do live here but it was never the main thing. Today I almost can’t do anything else but write about ‘it’.
Q: Do you think poets have a role in society?
A: Even if I didn’t believe in the role of a poet before, I’m seeing now that peculiarly enough there is one. The echoes (of current events) are so strong in the poems I’ve been writing lately that I’m beginning to believe in this role.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a poet first? You’re also a teacher, a farmer, a mother, a citizen . . .
A: Well I’m not such a young poet anymore, and after all these years, it’s a major axis inside me. Maybe I don’t call this ‘poet’ but rather the experience of attentiveness, paying attention all the time. Even when I’m not writing I’m a poet, and I know a lot of people who never write poetry but they are poets in this way.
Q: Do you mean paying attention to details?
A: Yes, I mean always watching reality from the side, haזarah, what do you call that in English?
Q: Estrangement, perhaps, in the sense of making strange.
A: Seeing things from a different perspective, as if the poet’s eye has a different angle of vision. At first I thought everybody saw things this way, but (now) I think that every poet is a bit of an outsider; to be a poet is to be an outsider. I’ve had this sense since childhood. I arrived in Israel at the age of four. I was different and I suffered because of this.
Q: Many Israelis weren’t born here.
A: True, but I arrived with my parents in Gedera, which is a kind of exclusive place: everyone Israeli with biblical sandals and blue pants with a white stripe down each side. The feeling of being outsiders was strong.
Q: Does knowing Hungarian in any way interfere with your Hebrew?
A: No, I don’t think so. My mother tongue isn’t my mother’s tongue; it’s strange, but I haven’t got that feeling, as you do, of living in two languages. Hebrew is my home, I’m completely at home in Hebrew.
Q: I have some of your poems posted on my door at the university and recently I found a linguistics lecturer standing in front of it, reading and laughing. She says your poems are ‘playful’. How would you place yourself in contemporary Hebrew poetry?
A: With regard to humor? I’ve heard that humor is one of the characteristics of my poetry, but it’s part of poetry because it’s part of life. I mean there is something funny about life, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive, right?
Q: How would you describe Israeli poetry?
A: I like it very much. With me it’s a bit more complicated because I know all the people involved. We Israelis have a special kind of jealousy; there’s even a name for it in Hebrew – ‘writers’ envy’. There’s no ‘lawyers’ envy’, but it’s written in the Talmud: ‘Writers’ envy increases wisdom’. It’s good that everyone wants to surpass the others.
So when I talk about Hebrew poetry I have to discount what happens between poets, which isn’t so ‘poetically correct’ – lots of tension. Let’s say that dead poets are much more appreciated than living ones, and much easier to get along with too!
Q: How would you characterize current Israeli poetry?
A: I see that there’s a renewal of rhyme and formal stanzas. Perhaps because of the disorder, the chaos we have here, people suddenly long for order, even inside poetry. It’s coming back, a kind of poetry I don’t know how to write, the poetics of [Nathan] Alterman (1910-1970): stanzas, rhyme, meter.
Q: What are you thinking about at this moment?
A: Suddenly it occurs to me, I think that what a person writes is a kind of symptom of his or her spiritual development. I don’t write directly mystical poetry, but it is poetry which searches inward.
Q: Do you read poetry in translation?
A: Of course. When I discovered translated poetry my own work moved up a grade. I’ve always thought that translation is a very generous act. I wouldn’t have been able to know the great poets without translators. To be a translator is to be generous, giving people what they otherwise wouldn’t get.